Photo by Janos Kummer

The phoney war

Not the woke, but Carlson-Corbyn conspiracies are remaking politics

Artillery Row

Perhaps you’ve heard that we are in the middle of a culture war? It’s an important battle, fronted by two different camps with diametrically opposed views of the world and politics. But the real culture war is not the sham one that you hear about all the time.

A healthy society can tolerate and even learn from student protests

That culture war, which so excites the press, involves “woke” student/radicals against establishment worthies. It’s actually old wine in new bottles, devised to distract attention. It has been going on for at least six decades with different monikers, including hippies and “politically correct”, long before woke. To be honest, we should welcome that culture war. The sign of a healthy society is one that can tolerate and even learn from student protests. If you want a damaged society, you don’t have to look very far. You can find many where students are not allowed to express opinions, where their conformity is guaranteed through threats either subtle or even not. So treasure the woke, because as long as we have them, we are free.

No, the real culture war that is going on today involves far higher stakes and is part of the remaking of politics. It stretches from the Covid Pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from shared conspiracy theories to the possible future of democracy. One end of this culture war represents an unprecedented fusion of far-right and far-left, that stretches its reach far on both sides of the Atlantic. To help understand it, I’ve given it a name: the Carlson-Corbyn axis. And yes, that is Tucker Carlson and both Piers and Jeremy Corbyn. That being said, it could also be called the Le Pen-Ford concordat or the AFD-Proud Boys Alliance.

The Carlson-Corbyn axis has been very much alive on the streets and in the halls of Westminster this week. The attack on the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, by a group of anti-vax thugs shows just how much more serious this culture war is. The attackers used rhetoric that emerged directly from fake news about Starmer’s supposed complicity in not-prosecuting a famous paedophile, which had just been given wide-spread dissemination by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Even so, the Prime Minister and his supporters refuse to apologise — an admission of the power of the Carlson-Corbyn axis in populist politics today.

The power of this populist grouping has been built on a fusion of the right and left that has emerged from the collapse of Cold War conservatism and left/liberalism into their constituent parts. During the Cold War, the populist right and populist left were kept apart by incompatible visions of Communism and the Soviet Union.

Beyond foreign policy, Carlson-Corbynism has flourished during the pandemic

However in the past thirty years they have moved steadily closer, as the similarities in their world views and economic experiences have emerged. Whether evangelical Christian or hard left communist, both elements have an ideological and contested view of the world which sees evil forces vying with good in an almost never-ending battle for control.

Be they forces of secularism/modernism for the populist right or globalism/capitalism for the populist left, they cast the world as one dominated by evil elites. These elites have deprived the populists of their just place in their societies and stacked the system against them, leaving the populist right and populist left in relative economic decline (which they are) in comparison to the favoured globalist communities. Be it poor white areas in the Midwest which suffer from mass addiction and economic deprivation in comparison to the shiny coastal cities of California and the Northeast, or the areas of northern England where well-paid employment has plummeted in comparison to the roaring success of London, the feeling of being left behind and belittled is very real.

This unmooring and recombining of political understanding has led to the Carlson-Corbyn axis. In the US, its most vocal leader is the very popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson. It also has a European front including such populists as Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban and Boris Johnson. On the left it includes not only both the Corbynites of the political and anti-vax ideologies, it has adherents in the Melenchon backers in France and Die Linke supporters in Germany.

A great deal of the shared international vision can be seen in Carlson’s documentary praising the authoritarian Orban and building up a fictitious enemy of the west in the conveniently Jewish George Soros. More immediately, the Carlson-Corbyn axis supports Russian claims on Ukraine, arguing that the crisis there is being caused by US and NATO aggression, with nary a criticism for Vladimir Putin.

Beyond foreign policy, Carlson-Corbynism has really flourished during the pandemic. Quiet at first when people were dying in politically unappealing numbers, the axis has become increasingly militant over the last year. It is profoundly sceptical about the life-saving Covid-Vaccines, uses violent rhetoric and even action to rally forces against attempts to vaccinate people, and makes a point to belittle or disdain basic protective measures like the wearing of masks. In all cases it shares a basic conspiracy view of the pandemic, from its origin to its treatment — and often promotes the use of sham treatments such as ivermectin over life-saving vaccines.

Corbynites have been fighting supposed Washington elites for decades

This reliance on conspiracy theories to explain the Pandemic is not a one-off, as the Carlson-Corbyn access has a shared world view based on conspiracy theories. For the Carlson-ites, that is the existence of the Washington elites who stole the presidential election from Donald Trump. The Corbynites have been fighting these supposed Washington elites for decades longer, believing that the US is the cause of almost all the pain in the world. They go to the extreme of backing almost any regime, no matter how oppressive, as long as it is seen as fighting against Washington.

This embrace of a conspiratorial view of the world explains the great success of Carlson-Corbynism. It is based on a constituency that is either evangelically religious (such as many Republican Christians in the US today) or ideologically religious, such as the Marxists that make up much of the more extreme Corbynbites. These groups know that they are right, that their world view is the result of some higher power. As such they are willing to fight to the end to bring their vision into being.

This illuminates the basic conundrum of the real culture war. If the Carlson-Corbyn axis represents one end, there is no way to sum up the other. It has many different elements, from believers in science, soft and historical liberals, open-minded leftists, some Burkeian conservatives and even non-evangelical religious believers. Perhaps the only element holding this end of the real culture war together is that its followers are people who express doubt, and as they express doubt they don’t embrace causes with the commitment and ends-based justifications that typify its opponents. The Doubters have the numbers if they work together, but they more than often lack the cohesion to do so.

So the real culture war is finely poised today, and it’s not clear who will win: the much better motivated and organized Carlson-Corbynites who have their conspiracies driving them on and who would, if needs be, happily replace democracy with authoritarianism to get their way, or the numerically larger but not united and self-restrained Doubters. There are some hopeful signs that the Carlson-Corbynites are losing ground in continental Europe, but they seem very strongly entrenched in the US and might seize Congress in a year and the presidency in three. What is clear, therefore, is that it really does matter who wins this culture war — unlike the “woke” sham war you hear all about all the time.

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